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Donaldson's was city's first true department store

Miracle Mile store's escalators were almost as fun as a carnival ride.

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Donaldson's opened in Rochester's Miracle Mile on Oct. 15, 1953. The three-floor store's escalators were the city's first.
Contributed

ROCHESTER — The biggest attraction might have been the escalators — the first to be installed in Rochester.

It was Oct. 15, 1953, and it seemed like everyone wanted to ride the escalators to shopping heaven in the new Donaldson’s store, which opened that day in Rochester’s Miracle Mile shopping center.

So many people jammed the escalators in the three-story emporium, said store manager Alan Rich, that “many people found it difficult to move from one floor to the next.” An estimated 25,000 people visited the store on opening day.

The escalators symbolized that with the opening of Donaldson’s, Rochester had moved into the major leagues, retail-wise. This was only the second Donaldson’s store outside the Twin Cities (the first was in Rapid City, S.D.).

“Stupendous, terrific, way above expectations,” is how Rich described the first day to the Post-Bulletin. To handle the crowd of shoppers, about 40 sales clerks from the Minneapolis store were temporarily assigned to Rochester for the first week of business.

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The original store was known as Donaldson’s Glass Block Store when it opened in 1882 in Minneapolis. By 1900 it had nearly 500 employees and 150,000 mail-order customers, not to mention the crowds that shopped in-person on a daily basis.

To help shoppers, Donaldson’s published maps and brochures detailing the best ways to reach the store, and offered a branch of the post office, a travel agency, a lending library and a childcare center. Along with rivals Dayton’s and Powers, Donaldson’s made the Twin Cities a shopping hub for the Upper Midwest.

Rochester’s Donaldson’s would not have all of those extra features, of course, but with 70,000 square feet of floor space and an inventory of 350,00 items, it would be, as the Post-Bulletin claimed, “Rochester’s first department store.” If not that, then certainly the largest.

Rochester was chosen as the site for the new store, Rich said, based on “extensive surveys which indicated that this community needed additional shopping facilities due to its tremendous growth and national importance.”

The location at Miracle Mile was advertised as having parking for 1,500 cars and being “less than five minutes from downtown Rochester by bus or cab.”

At a time when nearly all of Rochester’s retail business was located downtown, Miracle Mile and Donaldson’s offered something new: a suburban-like shopping destination with easy access for automobiles. It was a trend taking off nationwide. In the metro area, Edina’s Southdale, which would also feature a Donaldson’s store, was scheduled to open in 1956.

For three decades, Donaldson’s thrived in Rochester, even in the face of competition from a new downtown Dayton’s store, and eventually Apache Mall.

Then came the consolidation and mergers in the department store market. In June 1985, Donaldson’s bought six Twin Cities Powers stores. Only a year later, the Carson Pirie Scott chain from Chicago gobbled up Donaldson’s. By August 1988, all Donaldson’s stores, including the Rochester branch, had been rebranded as Carson Pirie Scott outlets.

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Today, the grand old dame at the north end of Miracle Mile is a multi-story furniture store with modern stairways and an elevator taking customers from living room sofas to bedroom bureaus. The central escalators, which were once as popular as a new carnival ride at the county fair, are no more.

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Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

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